Jordan is preparing itself for a possible breakthrough in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry. According to sources, Amman expects the United States to unveil a “framework proposal” before the end of January. Chief of the Royal Court Fayez al-Tarawneh met with journalists last week to brief them on Jordan’s stand on final status negotiations, especially on refugees, Jerusalem and the borders. The meeting was off the record, but one of the columnists attending told Al-Monitor that Tarawneh wanted to emphasize Jordan’s position ahead of local and regional reactions to the proposed deal.
The deal could still fall through if Israel’s Knesset approves a draft law proposed by a government subcommittee on Sunday to annex the strategically vital Jordan Valley, which comprises 25% of the total area of the West Bank. It is not clear how Jordan will react to such a development, which would surely derail peace talks and undermine the two-state solution. Former Prime Minister Taher al-Masri told Al-Monitor, “A just solution to the Palestinian problem is in Jordan’s best interests.” He added that Jordan has the largest number of Palestinian refugees, and therefore it wants to protect their right of return. Masri said that Jordan rejects any solution that allows Israel to maintain borders along the Jordan Valley. He added that Jordan has a vested interest in being close to the bilateral negotiation table between Israel and the Palestinians.
Tarawneh was quoted by a parliamentary bloc he met recently as saying that 40% of Palestinian refugees in the kingdom have Jordanian citizenship and that the government must assist them in exercising the right of return and receive compensation. His statement has bolstered views that Jordan wanted to safeguard the rights of its own refugees in light of any final status agreement that might be reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
On Jerusalem, Jordan continues to supervise Muslim holy sites, a right that is recognized in the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, and was earlier this year supported by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Hashemite patronage of Muslim sites in East Jerusalem, which goes back to the late 1940s, is fervently defended by King Abdullah II.
On the borders, Tarawneh made it clear that while Jordan has no occupied land west of the Jordan River, it cannot accept the presence of foreign troops on its borders. Officially, Jordan supports a two-state solution that rests on implementing UN resolutions on Palestine. It wants to see an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, which until 1967 was Jordanian territory, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The Palestinians made their grievances known over the security arrangements, which US Gen. John Allen has prepared to reassure the Israelis. Originally, the proposal kept the Israeli army deployed along the Jordan Valley, the Palestinian state’s eastern border with Jordan, for at least ten years. The Palestinians have rejected this and news reports say that Kerry may alter the plan to replace Israeli troops with US or NATO soldiers. The draft law to annex the Jordan Valley was meant to undermine such arrangements by extremists in the Israeli government who oppose a territorial deal with the Palestinians.
Details of what the proposal says on East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements have not been released. Palestinian sources spoke of Israel being willing to cede 42% of West Bank territory. Most large settlements will be annexed by Israel in return for mutually accepted land swaps. Jerusalem is a thorny issue, as Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu rejects any suggestion that might divide the city or allow the Palestinians sovereignty over parts of it.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said that a framework agreement would include a general accord on core issues, but would leave the details of implementation to a final treaty. The deadline for signing this accord is the end of April, and both sides are expected to reach a final agreement within a year. But another Palestinian negotiator, Mohammed Shtayyeh, had warned that the deal implements Netanyahu’s vision of a Palestinian state with temporary or transitional borders. He said that in Israel’s view, “temporary” can easily become permanent.
But if the Palestinians, who are coming under US and European pressure to reach a deal with Israel, succumb to an agreement, Jordan would like to be prepared. In the 1991 Madrid peace conference, it offered the Palestinians a political umbrella to attend the talks through a joint delegation, only to be taken by surprise when the Oslo agreement was revealed. This time, Jordan is taking no chances. It wants its position to be known ahead of any deal that might be reached, especially if the accord proves to be a controversial one.
This week, former Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit warned of “surprises” resulting from Israeli-Palestinian negotiations through “secret channels.” Former chief of the Royal Court, Adnan Abu Odeh, told Al-Monitor that the Jordanian position differs from that of any other country, as it considers itself a “partner in results” of any negotiations. He said that Jordan cannot afford to support just any deal with the Palestinians and that it considers the Jordan River a natural border between it and the future Palestinian state.
In addition to preserving its role in Jerusalem, Jordan is concerned about the fate of over two million Palestinian refugees on its territory. Other than defending the rights of its own citizens, as Tarawneh has said, Jordan wants to have a say in any agreement that concerns refugees. This is a hot political potato for many Jordanians. The settlement of Palestinian refugees in Jordan will irk East Jordanian conservatives who are worried about the delicate demographic balance in their own country.
At a time when the Jordanian monarch is implementing political reforms, many voices are calling for a just election law that does not treat Jordanians of Palestinian origin as second-class citizens. A final settlement of the refugee issues will be one of the biggest political challenges facing Jordan.